First, the good.
Steven Adams (six points, nine rebounds, two steals, one block) proved once again to be a reliable pillar on both ends of the floor, and despite their youthful ages, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson can be counted on the vast majority of nights to lead the Pelicans’ offensive attack.
B’Easy scored 28 points and hit four three-pointers, often resembling Kevin Durant out there on the floor. He went to the free throw line 11 times, canning 10 freebies, and made numerous difficult jumpers over out-stretched hands including this one.
Brandon Ingram and Zion have 46 points on 22 shots. Seems pretty good. pic.twitter.com/CvJ6lNRzCL— The Bird Calls (@TheBirdCallsNO) December 25, 2020
Williamson posted his second double-double of the season, and the fourth of his career, racking up 32 points and 14 rebounds. Thanks to Miami’s staunch defense — made all the more difficult due to New Orleans’ inability to make shots and keep the lanes open, Zion’s production was not always pretty, but he was usually effective, at least on offense.
Josh Hart was the only other player for the Pelicans to score in double figures (12 points) as JJ Redick (1-7 FGs), Eric Bledsoe (2-10 FGs) and Lonzo Ball (2-8 FGs) all struggled immensely to find the range from the field.
The defensive problems for New Orleans, the team’s most glaring weakness, started right out of the gates against Duncan Robinson. He was given far too many open looks, capitalizing on the Heat’s very first possession.
Bledsoe can’t offer this much help here, even if he calls for a switch. Adams should never be asked to chase one of the deadliest three-point shooters around the perimeter.
Robinson finished with 23 points and seven threes, but four of those triples came in the first quarter, allowing Miami to keep pace with an excellent offensive start by New Orleans.
The Pelicans’ defense, however, was really exposed in the second quarter. The Heat scored 37 points, and had it not been for a 7-2 run to close out the 1st half, New Orleans would have trailed in the neighborhood of 20 points at halftime.
“We had a lot of problems with our defense in the second quarter where we weren’t locked in to what we were supposed to be doing,” Van Gundy said to postgame media. “I think our guys were confused as to what was going on. That’s something we need to work on and drill.”
There was no one more consistently confused on the floor than Williamson, Jaxson Hayes or Nicolo Melli. Good thing Jax and Nico are the two bigs in the rotation behind Zion and Adams, huh?
You hope that Redick doesn’t get beat on backdoor cuts like this, but it happens. Hart made the proper rotation after Hayes missed his — Jax should not have felt the need to stay that close to Bam Adebayo, but then Williamson compounded the problem by failing to recognize the action. Once Josh went to help on Avery Bradley, it was on Zion to get into position between Andre Iguodala and Robinson (and hopefully shade towards Duncan).
Following these three easy points for Miami, Hayes immediately turned the ball over on the Pelicans next possession — no jump passes, please! — which led to a couple of Dragic free throws in transition. Then, Jaxson was inexplicably beat down the floor by Adebayo on Miami’s next offensive possession.
Both Bledsoe and Hart should have done a better job of sprinting back in transition defense, but Hayes watched his own assignment race past him down the floor for an easy bucket. Not surprisingly, Van Gundy immediately replaced Hayes with Melli.
Things didn’t go any smoother, though, as evidenced by the most porous of defenses against a simple pick-and-roll.
That dunk by Bam capped an 11-0 run for Miami, giving them a 40-28 lead, and forced New Orleans to fight uphill on the scoreboard the rest of the way...against the Eastern Conference Champions...at their place.
The problematic defense when Adams was resting on the bench continued in the third quarter. Hayes didn’t make an appearance in the second half, but the combination of Melli and Zion proved incapable yet again of protecting the rim.
Zion found himself in no man’s land, not stopping the ball/being able to affect a potential pass or stay with his original assignment, and Melli didn’t help, electing to stay closer to Damian Lillard’s clone, Meyers Leonard.
However, nothing topped the woes on the night like Miami’s out of bounds play about thirty seconds later.
Nicolo Melli was beat on a simple cut by Precious Achiuwa to the rim on a dead ball. That can’t happen. Ever.
In postgame, Van Gundy lamented the 19 turnovers by the Pelicans as well as their poor transition defense in giving up 19 points, but also his decision to not give the bench more minutes in an effort to save the legs of his key contributors.
“Josh played well and J.J. played really well on Wednesday. We’ve had really good production out of those two guys and I haven’t even given anybody else a chance, so that’s on me. I’ve got to start using those guys more, giving those minutes so they get a chance to produce so we’re not as tired late in the game.”
In my opinion, Stan Van Gundy did give the reserves an opportunity, but because they fell so hard on their faces so quickly, he was forced to lean much harder on his starters. Even with Jimmy Butler sitting out after halftime due to stiffness in his right ankle.
That’s not the fault of the head coach if his priority is to win games. Especially following a very short preseason. The front office, however, isn’t free from blame.